Feb 4, 2014

R.I.P.: Philip Seymour Hoffman - 1967-2014

The Master
As most cinephiles did this past Sunday, February 2, I discovered the unfortunate passing of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. My immediate reaction was one that felt not unfamiliar to what I felt for James Brown and George Carlin before: bafflement. Every news outlet clarified that the news was in deed fact. It was shocking for many reasons, but most specifically because I felt like he died in the midst of his prime. He had just received an Oscar nomination for his work in The Master, had a supporting role in The Hunger Games franchise, and currently had two films at Sundance. That as well as several other things made me believe that he was in his prime. That is a tough comment to make, specifically as he has never been bad. He has been great in bad things, but never vice versa. 
To write him a eulogy would seem unfair however. To me, I felt like I took him for granted. His entire body of work ranging from the brilliant Paul Thomas Anderson films to Capote to the highly underrated The Ides of March, he was always working hard. Still, I cannot claim to be as enthusiastic towards him as most people simply because I rarely sought a film because of him. He just happened to be there to impress me in a surprise supporting role. In that respects, I feel ashamed at myself, but that doesn't mean that I don't recognize his impressive body of work. In fact, instead of a eulogy, I wanted to share the moment in his career that elevates above everything else and what specifically makes me respect him as something more than a talented actor.
I have never been shy to my enthusiasm towards director Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master. Since 2012, it has become one of my personal favorites in its psychological study of cults and romance in the mid-20th century of America. At the helm was Joaquin Phoenix in a performance that remains so endearing to me that it seemed to influence career choices. The film is solely responsible for inspiring me to start The Oscar Buzz blog which has since evolved into its own beast. It even inspired me to write my own theory on the true meaning of this bizarre story. The article itself has drawn a divisive audience response and remains one of my most popular posts in Optigrab's existence. To say the least, The Master has been a strong influence on my work and that couldn't have been done without Philip Seymour Hoffman to drag me along for a commanding actor set piece that demands your attention.
I am not saying that prior to this that I never recognized Hoffman. Far from it. The only difference is that with this film, I felt like I understood the charisma that was Hoffman. From the hypnotic score by Jonny Greenwood to the ominous cinematography, it was a production reeking of Americana. It was a bar set high after Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Even if it is debatable on which is actually better, his follow-up remains a puzzling venture with plenty of material to dissect and an unnerving quality to its performances. It may be divisive, but it is one of the more ambitious American films in recent years and the definitive statement as to why Anderson worked with Hoffman on so many films.
Consider the performance. Hoffman stars as Lancaster Dobb, who starts a religious group called The Cause in which he teaches his group about life through a mixture of hypnosis, time travel, and laboring exercises meant to enhance the mind. Along the way, he meets Freddie Quell (Phoenix), who becomes his errand boy, eagerly attending to each of his demands. He is so dedicated that there's even symbolism of his loyalty featuring attributes of canines to their master. There is beauty in the chemistry and for the first time, Quell seems explicitly happy.
There are many takes that Quell and Dodd were indeed homosexuals and that this whole film was about their relationship. That is where I differ. Dodd and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) always felt more like parental roles talking to Quell like a son. They train him to believe their teaching and discipline him likewise. Where Peggy is subdued and nuanced to an unnerving degree, it is Dodd who essentially gets through to Quell's animal-like urges. 

When he speaks to a protesting party about The Cause, he speaks with confidence. This is typical Hoffman territory, but the approach is fascinating. It is a scene that itself was used as the clip at the Oscars to demonstrate Hoffman's Best Supporting Actor nomination. In this scene (above), he begins in a low register, speaking calmly and like a reasonable man. His exterior shell has a reputation to uphold and tries to lure his naysayer in for his hypnosis therapy known as processing. As the conversation dives further into realism, he loses his cool, but never his confidence. Listen as his voice becomes more urgent as scientific facts are lobbied against his reasoning. The conversation eventually dives into time travelling and evolves into the delicious insult of "Pig fuck!" 
It takes a skilled actor to keep this from diving into loony territory. Hoffman's cadence becomes more commanding and even suggests some wavering disbelief. Still, his calmness reflects what I feel makes him such an indelible actor. Just as much as he was a recognizable presence, he was also someone whose voice could implicate a wide range of emotions with simple quivers, bursts or insults. He was an expert of communication as a character. From this scene alone, it is easy to see how Quell could be so attracted to Dodd. He speaks like the definitive answer to the universe, a nice parallel for Quell's wild card insecurity. 
More than any film, I feel this scene is evidence of what Hoffman did best. In fact, this whole film did just that. He gets more nuanced moments in which he sings "Slow Boat to China" and hides cryptic messages in his image of the perfect man. On the flip side, Peggy is his release, revealing vulnerability through what seems like sexual repression and paranoia. Dodd was a complicated man with many images that he presented to different people. As much as The Master was a story about love and religion, it was also about how one presented himself to the world. 
Hoffman never seemed to have trouble with this. His confidence radiated in everything that he did. From unfortunate reports that have since followed his death, it does seem like he had a troubled private life (which we will not discuss here). However, he showed no signs of slowing since this amazing performance. As it stands, we'll likely still be seeing him in films up through Mockingjay Part 2 sometime next year. He was a prolific man who left an indelible mark on cinema. I cannot claim to have even seen half of his films, but what I have seen definitely raises the questions: who could possibly even come close to his burly charisma? Hoffman is essentially Dodd in that regards.

Time will only tell how his legacy holds on. Still, in his brief time, he has turned in a lot of impressive work. While the previous scene mentioned feels like an integral estimation of his skills, it is the processing scene that is my definitive moment of his career. In a moment when discussing Quell's sexual history and hints of incest, there is tension and desire to be accepted. Hoffman was always in control of how we viewed him. If we blinked, we would have to start over. Even then, this scene reflects an emotional opposite to the earlier scene. Where Quell is losing his mind, Dodd is the calm soldier, extracting information in a haunting fashion. He may not be changing himself tonally, but he does increase his command over us with each moment of dead air.

All we can do now is stare into Hoffman's body of work and point out personal favorites. Films like Capote, Boogie Nights, Charlie Wilson's WarThe Ides of March are all ones that quickly come to my mind. In a sense, I didn't do him justice by missing a lot of his more intimate films that showed his range. I respected him, but compared to other actors, he was always there when you least expected it. He made film better and if The Master can be a metaphor for anything, it is the cult of Hoffman as an actor. Someone who was so powerful that he could be spouting nonsense and still make you love him. 

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